:: Norma Wikler Memorial ::

...:: paul levy : a tribute to norma ::...
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June, 2002

I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of Norma's existence - though my first real memory of her was when we were kicked out of Sunday school for performing the Miracle of the Moving Bush. Banished temporarily from the classroom, along with Judy Goldfarb, we sneaked outside, on a fine spring day. I can see our teacher in my mind's eye, even now, but I can no longer put a name to him - could it have been Charlie Schwartz? We'd been chattering in class, refusing to listen to some Old Testament nonsense tale - Moses's discovery in the bulrushes or the fall of Jericho or some such - and the exasperated teacher had slung us out.

The bulbs had flowered, and the bright yellow Forsythia was in bloom. (Did I ever tell Norma that the correct pronunciation is "for-sie'-thi-a," with a long "i" because it's named for a Mr. Forsyth?) Using my penknife (why was I allowed to bring it to Sunday school?), we cut enough of the spindly branches to make a convincing simulacrum of a small bush. We then promenaded under the high windows of the classroom from which we'd been expelled: we couldn't be seen from inside, but the moving Forsythia could. We hoped the miracle of the ambulatory bush would create a commotion in the class. After all, wasn't our miracle bush on the same theological footing as, say, the burning bush? So Norma, Judy and I now added blasphemy to our insubordination.

The three of us carried on our anti-Establishment conspiracy in high school, but I don't think Judy's heart was in it in the same way as Norma's and mine. The two of us had mischief in our souls. If there was a line on the floor, we had to cross it; if there was a boat, we felt compelled to rock it. There was a part of both of us that wanted to belong to a club, mob, gang, class or congregation; but a much bigger part that, like Groucho Marx, didn't wish to belong to any club that would have us as members.

Besides being un-clubbable, we were contrarian. We often did things just because things like that simply weren't done. In high school we were carpeted for writing seditious editorials in the school newspaper pointing out that the pep club's posters were mis-spelled; for drinking at the back of the bus on a school trip to Cincinnati; and for our generally subversive attitude. The unreconstructed racist principal, Dr. Davis (I think he was called), called us into his office one day in our senior year, and pleaded with us to conform, if only just a little. His own job, he said, was endangered by our antics, not to mention our hopes of going to good colleges. We weren't intimidated, however. It was 1958, four years after the Supreme Court desegregation decision, and Norma and I had convinced ourselves that Dr. Davis had been spotted wearing a white sheet and cavorting around a burning cross on the school's lawn.Besides, we were aware that, even if we weren't going to be class valedictorians or whatever, we were the true elite of the school, and he'd never dare even think of expelling us.

So, with the blessings and connivance of our crazily eccentric English teacher, Donn Hollingsworth, Norma and I carried on fomenting revolution. How on earth did we get parental permission or find venues for the parties we insisted were "orgies"? The mere word was enough to ensure attendance at them by some of the cheerleaders, and to incite envy amongst the football team members we had designated as enemies of the revolution. In fact, the parties were innocent enough - there was a little smoking, a little drinking but not much by way of heavy petting (as it was then called) - though one girl did get pregnant, and we always though it must have happened at one of our orgies.

Norma and I never lost touch, or the appetite for behaving badly in each other's company. There was the time when we were college freshmen, and she visited me at the University of Chicago. At a party given by friends who lived in a building scheduled for demolition, we broke a window by accident, and found it so much fun that soon all the revelers were smashing windows. Years later, when I was at Nuffield College, Oxford, and Norma was staying with me, we retaliated against the Salvation Army Band that had awakened us early on a Sunday morning by playing hymns under my window. We tied Norma's lacy knickers to a pole and waved them out the window until the man playing the sousaphone got the giggles.

Still later, Norma came to collect me from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco, where she knew I had retreated following a weird interview with Joan Baez (who began the conversation by saying "Some people are disturbed by my narcissism"). Determined to preserve the tone and aesthetic unity of my trip to California, Norma came in fancy dress. Her bottle-blonde hair was smartly cut to call attention to her best feature, her sculptured high cheekbones. Stiletto heels made her nearly six feet tall. Her svelte model's figure was emphasized by her shiny black rubber raincoat with metal fastenings in odd places. When she got to my room Norma shrieked with laughter: she was certain that the distraught man at the desk who had called to announce her had thought she was a lady of the night who specialized in rubber fetishes, and that I had engaged her professional services.

Once at a publishing party in New York for one of my books, Norma and her date were some of the few guests to get through the police cordon that had isolated much of Greenwich Village. (The party in the West Village had incautiously been scheduled for Halloween; the publishers had forgotten about the gay parade.) When I opened the door to Norma and the tall man with her, I was astonished. "How did you get through?" I asked. "Ray's a cop," Norma said. "Show 'em your gun, Ray." Which he did, making the rest of the guests mirthful and nervous in equal parts.

By middle age Norma and I had become respectable in our different ways, she by having an academic career and pursuing her public-spirited work with the judiciary. When we were together a spark of mischief still flew between us, but by the time we reached fifty we could control it a little better. With a family to support and consider, I had returned to my bourgeois origins. Norma, however, was liberated by this stage of life to pursue further adventures in radicalism involving coffee, pineapples and a warm climate. Our meeting in Budapest a couple of years ago at a Wikler family reunion was marked by unaccustomed sobriety, and our last meeting, lunch at her New York apartment for Penny and me, was notable for good food, good conversation, warm feelings and a single glass of wine each. We'd even earned moderation.

When I had severe clinical depression in 1998, Norma wrote to me fairly regularly. Her letters were so helpful that I did not realize that they were written from the perspective of someone who knew what was happening to me because she had experienced it herself. Re-reading some of them, I kick myself for not seeing that. When I first heard Norma was dead, I felt betrayed and angry with her for dissembling so successfully - she had let us believe that she would be coming to England for our 25th wedding anniversary party in late June. And, of course, for not giving me a chance to help. But I now see, and respect, Norma's incredible strength of will, and determination not to allow her problems to become anybody else's.

At least, like everybody else who ever encountered her, we've got our memories. How Norma would have relished the ditsy incongruity of having an epitaph derived from an old, banal Readers' Digest theme: but she really was The Most Unforgettable Person I've Ever Met.